Monday, January 12, 2009

Come, Follow Me. I Will Make You Fish For People.

Today’s First Reading, the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews, marks a transition from the end of the Christmas season to the beginning of Ordinary Time. The author reminds us that, in the past, God spoke to his people “in partial and various ways”, through the prophets. But, in the Gospels, even when the four evangelists present the events in different order, and some of the details change from one to the next, the basic message is clear: Jesus is presenting a New Covenant, one based not on law, but on love, and he is offering up his own life to restore the bond between God and his people. It was, as the author of Hebrews reminds us, only to Jesus that God said, “You are my Son; this day I have begotten you.” Or again, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a Son to me.” And when God’s only-begotten enters the world of men, he says, “Let all the angels worship him.”

The Letter to the Hebrews is clear: the Son who is described here is the one through whom all things were created. He is “the radiance of God’s glory, the imprint of God’s being”. As all of the gospels of the Christmas season have affirmed each in its own way, this child, born in the flesh, born of a woman, is the eternally begotten Son of God, and is himself truly divine.

Today’s gospel brings us to a moment just after John the Baptist was arrested, when Jesus went up to his home country in Galilee to begin proclaiming the Good News: “"The time has come," he said.”The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Then he saw Simon (later called Peter), and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake -- they were fishermen. He called out to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Now, they didn’t look at each other and say, “We know him; he’s the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. What does he know about fishing?” And he went a little farther, and saw James, the son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending nets, and he called them to join him. Straightaway, they left their father in the boat with the hired help, and followed Jesus.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were not scribes, or Pharisees, or doctors of the law. They were working folks. He himself came from Nazareth, of which it was asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” His foster-father was a carpenter. The first four, Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John were fishermen. It was an important trade. The historian Josephus wrote that in this time there were more than 300 fishing boats plying the waters of Lake Gennesareth. The name of the town where the first four lived is called Bethsaida, “Fish house”. An English author once wrote, “You can’t put a great soul into a commonplace person; commonplace persons have commonplace souls.” The author was D.H. Lawrence, and his comment might well be applied to his two best-known characters, Mellors, a gamekeeper, and his ironically named lover, Constance. The carpenter from Nazareth would not agree. He looked at loud-mouthed, unschooled fishermen (It is not for nothing that the sons of Zebedee were called “sons of thunder”), and saw great potential in them. Later, he would do likewise for a tax collector, one of the most despised professions in Israel, because the taxes were going not to Jerusalem but to Rome. Perhaps, during this new year, he will accept the offering of ourselves, and, as today’s prayer over the gifts says, “Make us grow in holiness and grant what we ask in faith.”

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